(Stats Perform) - Only one of the 12 schools can win the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game as well as the Celebration Bowl, but they're working together toward claiming an unofficial title:
The most interesting conference in FCS college football this fall.
MEAC powers Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M joined the SWAC earlier this month, increasing it to a 12-school HBCU super conference full of top teams, coaches and players. There are so many terrific story lines up and down the two six-team divisions that the best one doesn't necessarily involve Jackson State coach Deion Sanders anymore.
It was no wonder that during the SWAC media day broadcast over ESPN3 on Tuesday commentator Jay Walker joked about the heat radiating off commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland: "The SWAC is hot," Walker said.
Alabama A&M will try to defend its SWAC title from this past spring, but the Bulldogs surely benefitted from Alcorn State, which had appeared in the six previous conference championship games and won four of them, sat out the pandemic-delayed 2020 season. A&M was voted atop the East Division and Alcorn the West Division in the SWAC's preseason poll, with the Braves shifting divisions to accommodate the two new programs joining the East.
"We'd be the first team ever to win two championships in the same year," A&M coach Connell Maynor said. "We're going to have '21 spring and '21 fall."
Said Alcorn coach Fred McNair: "I have no problem moving (divisions). You know, I travel back and forth from home sometimes, too - I get in the car and go. So it will be no different in getting on the bus, riding over to the West side and playing those competitive teams over there."
Including the "classic" games that are played at large stadiums in neutral locations, the SWAC has led FCS conferences in attendance in 43 of the last 44 seasons, and the first one involving a member school this season - Alcorn State facing North Carolina Central in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge on Aug. 28 in Atlanta - has landed an extra spotlight with ESPN's "College GameDay" scheduled to make its 10th all-time appearance at an FCS game. From Jackson State taking on Florida A&M later that Labor Day weekend to the Bayou Classic between Grambling State and Southern over Thanksgiving weekend, the SWAC schedule is littered with top matchups.
The FCS' only conference championship game will follow on Dec. 4 in Atlanta, and the winner will return two weeks later to face the MEAC champion in the Celebration Bowl, which generally crowns the black college football national champion.
The SWAC expansion includes two programs that, like Alcorn, are playing for the first time since 2019. Florida A&M was arguably the nation's top HBCU program that season, but was ineligible for the MEAC title and the postseason. Bethune-Cookman posted the 10th-highest winning percentage (.696 from 80-35) among FCS programs last decade.
"When you look at it, we play a SWAC school every year, so we're no stranger to the SWAC," Bethune coach Terry Sims said, "and I don't think you need to change who you are just because you're changing conferences. We're going to bring our brand of football to the SWAC and see what happens."
"I think football is football," FAMU coach Willie Simmons said. "I think the thing that they'll be excited about is the pageantry - going to the different venues, seeing the tailgating, the bands."
And everything else that goes with the likely "most interesting conference in FCS college football."
SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Preseason Poll (with spring record unless noted)
1. Alabama A&M (5-0, 3-0 SWAC), 122 points
2. Florida A&M (2019: 9-2, 7-1 MEAC), 109
3. Jackson State (4-3, 3-2 SWAC), 80
4. Alabama State (3-3, 3-2 SWAC), 76
5. Bethune-Cookman (2019: 7-4, 5-3 MEAC) , 71
6. Mississippi Valley State (1-3, 1-3 SWAC), 25
1. Alcorn State (2019: 9-4, 6-1 SWAC), 128
2. Southern (5-1, 4-1 SWAC), 108
3. Grambling State (0-4, 0-4 SWAC), 85
4. Prairie View A&M (2-1, 2-1 SWAC), 78
5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-1, 4-0 SWAC), 68
6. Texas Southern (1-2, 1-2 SWAC), 37
Offensive Player of the Year - Alabama A&M QB Aqeel Glass
Defensive Player of the Year - Southern DE Jordan Lewis